Sunday, April 3, 2011


Certain passages of scripture rattle around my head, popping up at odd times, bringing more questions than they answer.

One that’s currently troubling me: the sheep and the goats passage, from Matthew 25. Jesus has been talking about the end times, the need to be ready, the need to keep watch. He tells the parable of the bridesmaids, who let their lamps burn low and weren’t prepared when the bridegroom came. Then the parable about the stewards: the ones who used the money they were given wisely and were rewarded. The one who buried the money and was cast out.

Then, tucked between that familiar stewardship parable and the plot to kill Jesus, comes this story:

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

  “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Questions? Quite a few. But the one that interests me in the moment is a practical one:  Those people who ended up in the goat section – what if they really didn’t see any hungry, thirsty, naked, sick people? What if they lived somewhere like me – in a nice suburban house, in a safe, pleasant neighborhood? Who could fault them for forgetting to feed the hungry, or failing to care for the sick? Or somehow missing the fact that millions of people die each year because they don’t have clean water?

A few days ago, I turned the radio on and heard a woman’s voice: African, struggling with English, but passionate and firm. The speaker was Rose Mapendo, a survivor of the genocide in Rawanda, asked about current struggles and conflicts in other parts of the world. She answered without hesitation: “’I believe it's everybody's responsibility to take the action to save these people's life. There is many thousands of people who are seeking for life, who need my help, who need my voice, who need your voice, who need the world's attention to save their life.’”  
What if we don’t see them?

There’s a big conversation going on among our elected officials about budgets and priorities and ways to cut the national debt. The budget proposed by the House of Representatives would cut non-military foreign assistance by almost 50%. In human terms, 18 million people would lose access to food they depend on, including 2.5 million children who would no longer receive their daily school meal, their one real meal of the day. 4 million people would lose access to malaria medicine, and the successful malaria net program President George W. Bush pushed so hard for would be cut substantially.

Why cut foreign aid? Because we aren’t paying attention.

In January, a national poll found that 75 percent of people thought foreign aid should be cut.

But this may explain that opinion: another poll a few months earlier found that when people were asked what percentage of the federal budget currently goes to foreign aid, the average response was that 27 percent of our budget goes to aid. When asked how much of the budget should go to foreign aid, the response was 10 to 13 percent. (Fiscal Times)

So – when people say foreign aid should be cut, they’re picturing a cut from about 27% to 10% of the national budget. That’s a big cut. But it would make foreign aid a tenth, a tithe, of our national budget.

In fact, current actual spending on non-military foreign aid is about 1 percent. A tenth of what people say it should be. A tiny fraction of what people believe it to be.

With recommended cuts, that number would shrink to about half of one percent.

Should we know that? Should we care?

I’ve been repenting, in this season of repentance, of my own utter ignorance about the federal budget, the ways bills are passed, my role in our democracy.  I’m not big on numbers, budgets, percentages. But as I’ve been trying to read more about this issue, and trying to understand what’s at stake, I’ve come to wonder if complexity, distance, lack of interest excuse my ignorance, my poor stewardship of the rights I’ve been given.

What does it mean to have a voice in caring for the poor? Whose lives are dependent on my action? Who needs my help, my voice, my attention?

Last week, a group of leaders concerned about justice, hunger and poverty committed themselves to a hunger fast on behalf of the poor. Tony Hall, the head of the Alliance to End Hunger; David Beckmann, the president of Bread for the World; Jim Wallis, the president of Sojourners; Ritu Sharma of Women Thrive and Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service were among the initial voices, agreeing to form a “circle of protection” around those who have no voice. They are concerned that a global food crisis, paired with recommended budget cuts, would result in tens of thousands of deaths, and would set back significant progress in control of diseases like malaria.

As I’ve prayed, I’ve concluded that a first step in being a better steward is to join the circle: I’m going to pray for the Hunger Fast, for our political leaders, for those who will be hurt if aid to the poor is cut. I’m also committing to fast a meal each day through the next two weeks, to use some of the time in reading more about the way our national budget works, and to commit to writing letters to those who make decisions.

There are other ideas described on the site. And lots of information available through organizations mentioned above.    

Not everyone can fast, even one meal. Not everyone has time to delve deeply into the politics of scarcity and hunger.

But we’ve been given voices, and votes, and many without voices or votes are dependent on us using them wisely.

I’ve been spending time with the Ash Wednesday Litany of Repentance. Here’s part:

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us...

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation.
   That we may show forth your glory in the world.

 Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.